Edward Slingerland, University of British Columbia

Religious History is Data

What if religious history was easily accessible in an online database? A project led by Edward Slingerland, based at the University of British Columbia, with collaborators from all over the globe, is creating such possibilities with the Database of Religious History (DRH). This online quantitative and qualitative encyclopedia collects and codes information about religious behaviors and beliefs throughout world history, helping researchers and students advance their work in more areas, with more accuracy, and at a faster pace than ever before.

Grant Title
The Database of Religious History: A Digital Humanities Approach to Religious Cultural History
Legal Organization
University of British Columbia
Project Dates
Start Date: 01 September 2017
End Date: 31 August 2020
Grant Amount

The Database of Religious History

This project is focused on creating and advancing a globally available database of scholarly opinion on the religious historical record—a new resource for scientific and religious studies and a vital tool in an environment that has seen scholarly outputs grow very quickly within the past fifteen years. 

The DRH was created specifically as a response to the challenge of managing the information overload of the 21st century. The goal of the DRH is to keep all of this important information in one online encyclopedia that is universally accessible, instantly updatable, and infinitely expandable with powerful built-in search, browse, analysis and visualization features.

Exponential Growth of Religious Studies

Historians traditionally make generalizations drawn from their view of available historical records. In generations past, this was much easier because the field of religious history consisted of only a handful of journals and influential scholars. This means it was possible for a scholar to retain the consensus of their entire sub-field simply in their head. Even one generation ago, this kind of overview was still possible with resources such as handbooks, edited volumes, and standardized textbooks. A scholar could still confidently generalize about the religious historical record with information available, if not in their head, then within their office.  

In the past fifteen years, however, scholarly production has ramped up vastly in scope, volume, and geographic range. High-quality religious scholarship now appears in hundreds of journals, handbooks, in other outlets, and in multiple languages. Historians and academics in other fields simply cannot keep up with it all.

What if religious history was easily accessible through an online database?

One of the main problems in the study of religion is the ability to comprehend the vast aggregate body of qualitative knowledge that exists throughout the world. This greatly limits the possibly of major breakthroughs in the study of religion’s role in human history. A large-scale, accurate, and easily analyzable database of human cultural and religious history would facilitate a more cohesive understanding of our past and fuel additional insights and discoveries.

Benefiting from Big Data

When it comes to the cultural evolution of religion, scholars have offered multiple theories. Functionalist theories of religion have a long pedigree in sociology and religious studies. More recent theories, such as group-structured cultural selection, pure by-product, individual genetic selection, and group genetic selection, as well as hypotheses that see religious innovation as driven by geographical, technological, or economic dynamics, offer very different accounts of religion’s role in the evolution of human societies.

The DRH brings together, in a systematic form, what is currently known about human religious belief and practice, through expert coding and commentary about different religious groups, places and texts throughout history. This quantitative quality allows rigorous testing of hypotheses about cultural evolutionary dynamics, and instant assessment of scholarly opinion in a field. It presents an innovative architecture, a user-friendly interface, and a growing community of editors and contributors.

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Portal to Understanding

The DRH will allow the religious and cultural historical record to be examined with a rigor and completeness that has not been possible before, allowing scholars to answer more definitively key questions about the relationship between the evolution of religion and the development of cooperation in human societies.

The long-term goal is that contributing to the DRH will become a normative practice among scholars of religion. In this way the database will become an ever-growing resource for scholars to explore the role of religion in human experience and cultural evolution with unprecedented accuracy, breadth and power. Securing the future of the DRH represents an investment in a basic research infrastructure that will continue to benefit future projects and increase our understanding of human religiosity for the long-term.

Most importantly, the aim is to establish the DRH as the primary reference source for anyone interested in human religiosity, including historians, scientists, policy makers, educators, students, and the general public.

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